I recently traveled to Zimbabwe as part of a tour to southern Africa. Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is located at the western point of this despot-governed country. Rich as it is in natural resources, Zimbabwe is also suffering from the worldâ€™s worst inflation. The Ten Million Zimbabwean Dollar note that I brought home had an expiration date of June 30, 2008. It is, or better said was, worth perhaps $1 US. It takes five of these notes to buy a loaf of bread, if such a luxury can even be found on barren grocery shelves. Visitors to Zimbabwe should pay in US Dollars, South African Rand or credit card, but donâ€™t, under any circumstances, use an ATM.
Vantage World Travel, known for its emphasis on cultural and educational experiences, provided advance information regarding luggage restrictions on intra-Africa flights and visa requirements. At the time we entered Zimbabwe, April 2008, a double-entry visa cost $45 US, cash only, although the government was making noise about raising the fee to $70 US. Paying the exact amount is advisable because change cannot be guaranteed. We needed the double-entry visa because we would be returning to Victoria Falls for a flight to Johannesburg after an excursion to Botswana. Single-entry visas cost slightly less.
The three days I spent in Zimbabwe left a deep impression on my heart and mind. I have traveled to many third world countries, and know of the primitive conditions and poverty therein. This was entirely different. Here was starvation, desperation and hopelessness, offset by the utmost courtesy and kindness. Prior to departure, I read formal (US Department of State) and informal (various blogs) advisories regarding thefts and robberies. I do not doubt the veracity of these accounts. I would recommend travel there at this time only as part of an organized tour with a reputable company. With close oversight by Vantage and visible security at the Victoria Falls Hotel, I was never frightened. Cautious, yes. Frightened, no.
The crafts market in the town of Victoria Falls is a holdover from better days. Few tourists come now to browse the dozens of individual stalls, packed with stone sculptures of thoughtful, contented faces, far different from the countenances of the carvers themselves. There are also rows of intricate hardwood carvings that accurately represent local wildlife, such wonderful creatures as lions, leopards, elephants and giraffes. Many vendors offered to trade me my choice of their wares in exchange for my shoes, my hat or my socks. I had no extra luggage space for purchases so I simply gave my hat away to one scrawny lad, but, sadly, I needed my shoes and socks. Had I known the true extent of the conditions there, I would have packed extra footwear, t-shirts and hats.
We also had the eye-opening experience of visiting a high school to interact with a group of the top students. Again, here was poverty at its worst. I wish every student in the United States who grumbles about attending school could share this experience. Classrooms were barren, windows broken, supplies non-existent. Yet the studentsâ€™ faces lit up as they talked about their special projects and their lifeâ€™s goals. I fervently wish them success. I am neither a politician or a diplomat, so I will not tackle the problems that need their expertise. I merely want to say that if your travel plans take you to this resource-rich, yet desperately poor country, open your heart and mind to the cultural experiences that await you there. And take along some extra socks!
Susan Tornga has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business Administration, but prefers travel to tax forms, and finds the world a much better teacher than any classroom. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicken Soup and Patchwork Path anthologies.